They pop up in surprising places sometimes. Gospel Songs that is. Elvis and Johnny Cash being just two expert if unlikely ‘bible belters’. Not so unlikely however was hearing them at the 63rd Bonn Folk Club because it was – you guessed it – Gospel Night. Join me now for a seat in the front pew and the Bible according to Pastors John ‘the Revalator’ Harrison and Steve ‘That’s Bible B.I.B.L.E.!’ Perry at Haus Müllestumpe.
John Harrison began with a quick reminder that it was recently Guy Fawkes Night in the UK courtesy of a poem about the man and then, who better to kick things off on a religious note than John ‘the Harrison’ singing about John the Revalator? It’s a powerful song best known by its 1930’s version by another John – well sort of – Blind Willie Johnson. Certainly, when John all but bellows “Who’s that coming?!” you feel that the revalator isn’t just coming – he’s coming for YOU!. Which makes the tender and melancholy ‘Angel in Disguise’, from the pen of a late and close friend of John’s all the more emotional than it usually is. Sometimes songs don’t need to be twelve bar blues to be sad.
What better person to meet when you are down than that cheery lady of Jazz ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’? John Harrison showed his abilities as a talent scout by spotting Britta Bücher one day skipping backwards across the market square in Bonn whilst singing “Rule Britannia” a cappella. Soon after John was one Bonn Folk Club visiting card lighter from his wallet, and we had a new floor-spot to enjoy. One only has to think of Cynthia Nickshas to realise that the streets are sometimes a wonderful repository for musical talent. If you catch someone special – tell them about FCB! John and Britta stuck to the original Ethel Waters version rather than the more well known jazz one – despite John’s concerns that they were “too white to sound black” but in the event it was a triumph and hopefully not the last visit of Britta Bucher.
Steve Perry had us back on the fast track to Jesus, albeit tongue in cheek, with his spot. Johnny Dare’s ‘Drop kick me Jesus’ needed a short explanation of American Football rules. And it has to be said that ‘We need a whole lot more of Jesus, and a lot less rock n roll’ is one Gospel tinted song that Elvis never recorded. Finally, Steve’s‘ Plastic Jesus’ with it’s comic/spoof lyrics:
‘I don’t care if it rains of freezes
‘Long as I got my Plastic Jesus
Riding on the dashboard of my car’.
Had me running for the exit. Not for any deep and religious reason, but because I was next up – and had to get happy thoughts out of my mind.
‘Oh Lord, How Long?’ is a hymnal that crops up from the late 1890’s and can be heard, rather scratchily admittedly, being sung in 1926 by Odette & Ethel who also contribute ‘I can weep but never grow weary’ and ‘No hiding place down there’ to their God fearing musical legacy. Interestingly, Odetta Jackson also more than dabbled in Blues and is in the background on many an early classic from the likes of Bessie Smith.
But away from the history. It’s here and now and after handing out paper handkerchiefs to the front row I leave the other five rows of tables and standers at the bar to fight their emotions as I begin:
‘About this time in another year, I know I may be gone. Out in some lonesome graveyard, Oh Lord, How Long? How Long?’
I soon start to regret suggesting the audience sing the second and last line of each verse aas the refarin “Oh Lord, How long’ starts to sound like a plea to me rather than the Lord. I make a late decision to drop the last ten verses and the applause, be it for my playing or for the relief that I’ve stopped is welcome (I’m not proud!)
There was certainly no one thinking ‘How long?’ during the next performance. There are a number of excellent acoustic guitarists in our midst at Folk Club and when three of them decide to play a set together then brother, you better be there. Werner Krotz-Vogel loves guitars and playing them – I know that from talking to him but would know it anyway when he plays. His colleagues, Thomas Monnerjahn and Frank-Olaf Nägel are clearly serious pickers too so it’s almost a contradiction to hear this wonderfully relaxed sound coming from three men hunched with deeply furrowed brows over their instruments. Danny O’Keefe’s ‘Good time Charlie’s got the Blues’ is really a Country song but tonight it’s very much a late-night Jazz affair that has everyone on the edge of their seats listening. Let anyone who orders a cappuccino now be smote down Lord! Whilst we are in the mood for sublime opulence in simplicity, there is a simply stunning version of John Mclaughlin’s ‘Lotus Feet’ that was so laid back the audience could have been swept up from under the tables afterwards. Simply wonderful, and I am so glad I was on BEFORE this trio!
Regular visitors to The Fiddlers will very likely know Shay McVeigh from the corner by the bar entrance. Tonight though he has an audience not fuelled by Kilkenny’s and as attentive as a room full of people is ever likely to be. Certainly, whilst not exactly a Gospel song, Robbie Robertson’s ‘Golden Feather’ might almost be a gospel song for Indians (if you take the “way back home” referred to as something even higher than a stolen piece of land in the Dakota Hills.
I remember Jimmy McCarthy’s ‘Bright Blue Rose’ from Mary Black and whilst Shay was never going to top that as a vocal he did deliver it as a deliciously warm ballad. If you’ve ever wondered what it was all about, and there are discussions on this online, you may be relieved to know Shay actually asked McCarthy himself once, who professed he didn’t really know either. I’m still checking (until now in vain) for a guy named Robby Wooble from where Shay got the song ‘Into the Blue’ but maybe he changed his name since – anyone who can tell me more?
A familiar tune kicked off part two. Barry Roshto and John took part in a short documentary piece about the Folk Club a couple of years ago and performed, completely unrehearsed I recall, a song called ‘Down to the River to pray’ which Barry claims as the only real white spiritual song. A shame that the audience were still immersed in conversations for the first verse, but it really is a lovely number, especially when John chimes in with a pining harp backing.
Sabine Hellmann’s appearance probably had the most true ‘Gospel evening’ tinge about it as she had everyone singing along to the likes of ‘When Israel was in Egypt’s Land’ and ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ ( The ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’s’ of the Gospel World). A lot of hand-clapping went down too if I remember, but no-one passing out in the aisles from the spiritual electricity raining down.
As noted, Gospel has taken many shapes, forms and indeed ‘vessels’. One of the latter was the late, great Johnny Cash. Bristol isn’t a place I would expect to find a Cash covers singer but then I lived next door to Elvis devotees once in Portsmouth so I’m open to all interpretations. In the event, Marco from Bristol did the Man in Black proud and even if Bernd Wolf’s local ‘Just Cash’ Band delivers a better Cash himself Berndt couldn’t top Marco’s obvious love for the Man and the Music and hopefully he will stop by to play again sometime – ‘When the Man comes around’. So to speak.
It seems like I’m writing half a book again about a Folk Club evening, but there always seems to be so much to say – about the musicians and also the music they sing. Arriving at Sebastian Handke’s appearance now will allow be to be brief. Mainly because I meant to note down the names of his self compositions but didn’t. Blame it on Sebastian being a friendly chap who you end up getting lost in conversation with and then forgot why you started the conversation in the first place. I can tell you that he had a gentle singing style and also a very able picking style to accompany it. He describes his music as being “about love, life and the eternal hope that everything is going to be all right”. A quick Google will put you at his website where you can hear his gentle melancholic style in action. One of those many reminders of how high the bar is becoming in visitors to Bonn Folk Club where good music is concerned. The aforementioned website will also give a link to music downloads so if you enjoyed Sebastian’s performance as much as I did – check it out (after finishing my review!)
Helge Kirscht, organizer of the “Seven Mountains Music Night” in Königswinter and Bad Honnef brought us some of his own biting compositions fuelled with an underlying sadness that had me fearing he might have found a deeper well than ‘Oh Lord, How Long?’. Bob Marabito on the other hand had us all laughing along to a song that featured Gospel and horse racing. An interesting combination although I’m sure many a prayer has been said on many a race track over many a year.
Rounding off the evening was a very pleasant surprise indeed. Benedict Steilmann really did a sterling job of Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Make me down a pallet on the floor’ and the oddball Ben Harper song ‘Mama’s got a girlfriend now’. As his set progressed he was joined by other musicians until the final number of the evening – ‘We shall overcome’. Maybe the perfect gospel number to bring the evening to a close. You can’t help but think of Pete Seeger or Joan Baez and the sixties freedom movement when this plays, but it is actually a Gospel Siritual born long before either Seeger or Baez.
Did I say ‘the last number?’ Whilst we were proclaiming that we would indeed ‘overcome someday’ a lady nudged me in the back to enquire “But you ARE all going to sing Jock Stewart, aren’t you?!” I aknowledge here once again, that John Harrison will not get the audience to leave until Jock himself has vacated the premises. So, with the last notes of that famous anthem to a man not met every day I headed home. Full of Gospel, good music and conversation.
Guitar under one arm and camera under the other I trudged down the dark road. Usually I head down this same dark road road with a Blues song in my head and a twenty minute wait for the next tram. Tonight however, before I reach the end a Good Samaritan (thanks Larissa!) offers me a lift to the tram stop, from where, despite it being almost midnight, a tram arrives almost immediately to take me all the way back to Kessenich. It seems that an evening closer to God does bring it’s rewards.
Sorry if I missed reviewing everyone, but Singers Nights are always a long haul. I hope you find yourselves amongst the photos below, and thank you all too for making the evening so special.
Finally, apologies for not writing down the song titles, but here is some magic from Sebastian Handke to enjoy…